Hey, look-- I don't mean to be ritually self-flagellating. There are very many things to be happy about right now, and many reasons for cautious optimism.
It's not a center-right country, it's just a capitalist one. As you know, I believe a lot of contemporary American liberalism's wounds are self-inflicted. That's true on particular issues but it's also true on a broader idea of what America is and what our chances are in any given fight. When conservatives define America as a center-right country, I recognize it as a truthful expression of their central delusion, which is that conservatism's popularity is immune to events and exists a priori. When liberals define America as a center-right country, I see it instead as a kind of willful abdication of their own responsibility for the way things are. Last night's election has already failed to budge most conservatives from their iron-clad belief in conservatism's popularity. We shouldn't advance that narrative ourselves.
Take a look at abortion. I have heard many times from liberals that this is an issue of natural weakness for our side. That's just flatly wrong; the pro-choice argument is one of natural strength. This will piss people off, but the rights of the fetus are inherently an abstraction. You can be very passionate about abstractions, of course, I certainly am, and you can sometimes win political fights about them. But the pragmatic realities that the pro-choice side speaks to-- the harsh reality of "I cannot be pregnant right now," the fact that abortion is a problem that is literally embodied within women-- are more material, and thus more easily rallied around, than the abstraction of fetal life. We have lost ground on abortion in the past few decades because of a failure to mobilize in the way that the pro-life side has, which is due to a lack of political imagination and spine, which is due to accepting the notion that this country is against us. Elections like this one have to change our self-definitions as on the wrong side of the nation, or we are as deluded as the conservatives who think it's still 1980.
That's the good news, and it's reason for profound optimism. The bad news is that while there is a real and emerging liberal majority, there is not an emerging majority that is able or willing to stand against capital. Here, we really are naturally disadvantaged: in a capitalist democracy, capitalism comes first. As long as there is money, money will largely direct the course of this country and not the people. The liberal coalition can't overcome that in part because a political majority would have to be far larger than any existing in America today and in part because a large part of the existing liberal coalition is itself a part of capital or captured by capital. So our prospects are constrained by how you define victory. There's the typical enthusiasm and optimism that attends any big Dem wins going around right now. To separate the likely from the unlikely only requires comparing the issues to the desires of capital. For the first time in my lifetime, I feel genuine optimism about the possibility of marijuana legalization, an issue where there is genuine disagreement within capital-- the prison and law enforcement industries vs. a potential profits in marijuana as a cash crop (unlikely) or the potential profits in a dramatic upscaling of marijuana paraphernalia and accoutrements (more likely). On the flipside, people saying there's a chance for a grand bargain on a carbon tax... that just seems insane to me. Moneyed interests gave huge sums of money to the Democrats as well as to Republicans, and there just doesn't seem to be any percentage in dramatically lowering carbon rates for them.
Loathe me though they may, for the last couple years I've thought of the commentariat at Balloon Juice as being a microcosm of what the American mainstream is now. I mean that in mostly good ways and a few bad ways. They are aggressive in prosecuting the case for liberalism. They are skeptical of corporations and the rich. They are cognizant and welcoming of a racially and ethnically diversifying America. They are interested in political change that emerges outside of the electoral political system, but are easily brought onto the reservation during election time. They believe strongly in the social safety net but are perhaps too quick to accept cuts to it when those cuts are proposed by Democrats. And they are reflective of an America that has simply left social conservatism behind. I think liberals and Democrats could do themselves a serious strategic service by assuming the average American voter is closer to the Balloon Juice constituency than to the mythical white Christian farmer that has dominated the political imagination of liberals and conservatives alike. That just isn't what America looks like anymore.
Some of the biggest assholes in American politics lost. Richard Mourdock, Todd Akin (AKA The Rape Brothers), Allen West, Joe Walsh.... That was fucking sweet. And people like Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin, while hardly without their own problems and baggage, are about as good as a guy like me can expect in our legislature.
The referendums! Like I said-- we might actually get marijuana legalization. It could actually happen. I'm still mostly pessimistic; the Obama administration's inexplicable tack towards prosecuting medical marijuana dispensaries is not a good precedent. But voters are looking more and more tired of the prosecution of nonviolent marijuana offenders. For awhile now people have said that only a Republican president could make marijuana legalization happen, on a "Nixon goes to China" theory. The problem is that Nixon usually doesn't go to China. I doubt very much that we'll see federal decriminalization in this presidential term, but the end of prohibition seems more and more likely.
Plus, the success of a marriage equality in a straight yes-or-no referendum is a big deal, and the fact that it seems unremarkable in a lot of venues is a sign of progress. (Connecticut had a referendum on a constitutional convention that was understood by almost everybody there as a referendum on gay marriage, but that lacks the punch of a direct vote.) And California's three strikes law got at least a little better.
There is still room for progress in foreign policy. I have pointed out recently that Obama bears particular blame for some of his foreign policy decisions because he has such broad control over that aspect of policy. He can't wave a magic wand and get a public option, although we can and should question tactics and priorities on domestic policy. But he could end the drone program tomorrow. He could close Guantanamo without much more political blowback than that. Looking back, that means responsibility. But looking forward, that means opportunity. I don't doubt that Obama has embraced the drone program because he believes it actually makes America safer. But I think that's wrong, and a compelling case can be made that it's wrong, and there's a chance he might be convinced to do the right thing. I'll be the first to applaud if he does.
We're still pretty screwed in a lot of ways. The capture of our politics by moneyed interests probably means that we're stuck with low-paying, low-quality jobs and the overall decline of labor standards, even though unemployment is likely to continue shrinking for awhile. Our financial sector is still very unlikely to be constrained in any real way, which means that we're still deeply vulnerable to bubbles and other major economic disruptions. And global warming-- suddenly thrust into the center of national attention, then swiftly kicked out again by the election-- I just struggle to find any reason for optimism. Really addressing that problem will take actions that would be too deeply disruptive to conventional American life.
But the important legislation of my lifetime is much safer. The Affordable Care Act-- flawed, limited, unsatisfactory, inherently conservative, a sop to the profit motives in medicine, and still very vulnerable-- is nevertheless one of the most important and positive pieces of legislation in American history. An as it ages, the essential controversy of whether the government should provide medical care to those who can't afford it themselves will cease to be controversial, and we will instead debate how best to deliver that medical care. Eventually, I believe, a public option will be invented not through prominent and controversial legislation but through a natural and pragmatic attempt to provide better and cheaper medicine. That result, the defense of a profound health care reform measure that will eventually provide medical care to millions, is worth cheering for, worth dancing for.
Update: JOE LIEBERMAN IS GONE FROM OUR LIVES FOREVER